Monday, August 15, 2011

Britain Asks: Does Prison Work?

In the aftermath of Britain's bewildering riots, here's an interesting discussion in The Guardian about an age-old question:  does prison work?  Most mandatory minimum sentences are created in the heat of the moment, in response to high profile crimes, and with little rational debate or discussion beforehand.  Britain's riots have all the earmarks of a mandatory-minimum-creating event.  Will Britain fall for it?  One MP (that's "Member of Parliament," for us former British subjects here in the States) seems ready to use mandatory minimums.  And yes, us Americans should be ashamed:  we are (again) used as the example of what not to do:

[David Davies, Member of Parliament]: I think there ought to be mandatory two-year sentences for people under a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule, no matter what the offence is.

[Juliet Lyon of Prison Reform Trust]: Well, you know they've used that in parts of the US and it's led to extraordinary overcrowding. In the mid-90s [Britain] had a prison population of around about 40,000; today we've got 85,000. There hasn't been a rise in crime that would justify that incredible hike in prison numbers. We spend a lot of money on prison when we could be investing in other public services, and the solutions to crime don't all lie in the criminal justice system. Many lie in preventing children and young people from getting in to trouble in the first place. We have got a vicious cycle in this country where, during their school years, 7% of children experience their dad going to prison – that's remarkably high. If you doubled the size of the prison population, you'd essentially you'd be doubling the problem. The problem is we've overused custody to the point that we've now got a veritable army of former prisoners coming out, ready to offend again, because prison isn't working to cut offending.
This isn't the first time Britain has faced a prison population explosion -- or a temptation to make it even worse by hiking up sentences.  One book any self-respecting sentencing nerd should read is Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding.  That book tells the story of how, in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, Britain's punishments became so harsh that the country filled its prisons to overflowing.  Britain tried to ease the overcrowding through "transportation" -- shipping convicts to Australia, which became a continental prison until transportation ended in 1868.  If you think California's prison overcrowding crisis is bad, you should've seen Britain's in the 18th century.

Whether prison works is a timeless debate.  What we do know: overstuffed prisons are expensive, unwieldy, and don't make rehabilitation a priority -- which isn't good for any of us.  Overly harsh (and especially mandatory) prison sentences contribute to overcrowded, unsustainable prison populations.  That outcome becomes an enormous burden on society, especially when there aren't any continents to ship your prisoners to.

In the wake of the 2011 riots, Britain has an opportunity to overreact and pass more prison-packing mandatory minimum sentences -- or to pause, act rationally, and trust its judges and courts to use limited and costly prison space for the people who most deserve it and most need it.  Britain doesn't have to repeat the mistakes of its own past -- or of America's.